Playhouse's 'Tidings' brings smiles and guffaws once its many subplots fall into place
Local playwright Brian McDermott's new play, ''Tidings,'' now at
the Pennsylvania Playhouse, is an ambitious and clever mix of several
traditional holiday plots. McDermott has a gift for dialogue and the
unpredictable and makes his audience smile, chuckle and guffaw. But
the play also suffers from too many secondary plot lines, and too many
one liners and comic skits. All this is entertaining and fun, but it
''Tidings'' is set in a department store, a la the 1947 movie ''The Miracle on 34th Street,'' but Macy's is now Taft's. The drunken Santa, George Rathbun, is based on George Bailey, the man who has given up on life in the 1946 movie classic ''It's A Wonderful Life.'' There also is homage to ''A Christmas Carol,'' with a villainous store manager, Frederick Neezer, whose only Christmas spirit has to do with profits, and three overworked spirits who must give George hope, reform Neezer and tell the audience when it is intermission. Also in the ''Christmas Carol'' spirit is Neezer's old clerk, Malcolm Jacoby, who arrives in chains and a hopeful persistence.
It may sound confusing, but it all falls into place and moves along very smoothly and quickly under Rebecca Pieper's inventive direction and clever gimmicks. The angels click and the lights go on and off revealing the audience. They click again and characters freeze. Angels make asides to the audience.
Unfortunately, the three-level stage set encumbers the action. There are too many shoppers coming, going and disappearing.
The cast is great — talented and filled with enthusiasm and energy. Ralph Schwalm plays the manipulative Neezer, and while he doesn't say, ''Bah Humbug,'' he does roll his ''r's'' and his voice trills as he delivers his lines with a venom that is as sweet as honey. Schwalm appears unassuming, but his Neezer is filled with greed, lustful thoughts and an engaging cynicism.
Jennifer Kurtz sparkles as an angel so full of positive energy and perky pep that she is more cheerleader than ghost. Kurtz lights up the stage with her exuberance and her high-stepping kicks.
John Monahan enters as the inebriated Santa, who wobbles on stage, collapses on a park bench and passes out, his legs entwined in the bench slats. He exits as a chunky, and unprepossessing hero, who never quite becomes the man he should be, nor the man his angel had in mind.
Jan Kleckner, as George's mother, makes an art of sneezing, drawing it out like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. And Caleiegh Schmid turns a brief cameo into a comic tour de force as the precocious and cynical little girl who never has gotten her wish from Santa.
Keith Moser is a charming but bumbling spirit. Gary Boyer's Jacoby lurks over the action like a vision of doom and Catherine Logan goes from awkward and sour to a charming young Virginia.
''Tidings,'' 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through Dec. 17, Pennsylvania Playhouse, Illick's Mill Road, Bethlehem, Tickets: $18; $15, seniors and students (Fridays and Sundays only). 610-865-6665, http://www.paplayhouse.org .
Arts and Entertainment Editor